Entrepreneur: Sir Richard Branson
Words by Juliet Austin & Sir Richard Branson.
JA: You have been quoted as saying that you would be happy, "living in a tree house with some vital comforts." How does your home on Necker Island reflect your personality and what 'vital comforts' can you not live without?
RB: Well, when I bought Necker in 1978, there wasn't much on the island. I wanted it to be really social for my family and friends and so built the Great House, which is where everyone gets together – usually by the bar or the pool table! My lovely wife, Joan, fell in love with Balinese architecture many years ago – hence its strong influence in our home. Necker is a precious little jewel in the Caribbean and here life is all about relaxation and is very laid back. It’s where I’m happiest and where most of my treasured memories over the years have been from – so it’s definitely where my most relaxed side of my personality comes out. I’m like most people in the 21st century and find it hard to live without my Blackberry and phone. No real hardship though when you’re in a hammock looking out over the beautiful British Virgin Islands.
JA: The Virgin Group’s portfolio of 400 or so products, past and present, ranges from condoms and vodka to air travel, space tourism and luxury retreats. How do you explain your success at developing such a versatile and diverse brand?
RB: I guess my best leadership quality is listening to others. Common sense says, if you start off with a happy, wellmotivated workforce, you’re much more likely to have happy customers and create a successful brand and business. I make sure I have lots of fantastic people working for me – I trust in them, believe in them and respect them. It’s that simple. Everyone knows a successful business is never about one person but about all of the people who work for a company. If you trust and believe in your staff, which we do at Virgin, they in turn will love and believe in what they do – your company becomes their company and they will give 100%. Virgin is full of amazing entrepreneurs who like nothing better than getting out there and seeing a new business or product grow.
JA: Explain your love of going where no man has gone before.
RB: I’m fascinated by the unknown and so excited to have the opportunity to explore space and the depths of the world’s oceans with Virgin Oceanic. You only get one shot at life – I’ve always thought you need to make the most of it.
JA: What was the catalyst for your earliest forays into the world of business and what need did they fulfil in you to keep you coming back for more?
RB: I was never very academic at school and so I guess my instincts told me I’d need to make sure I was damn good at something else! My parents always told me I had lots of energy and so was always on the lookout for something new. Even after all these years I still get extremely excited about starting up a new project or business.
JA: You seem to take great delight in challenging the ‘apparently impossible’….
RB: It’s just a case of learning to ignore the devil on your shoulder – to not let him put you off achieving what you want to achieve. I’ve always believed that fear is the worst demon of all. Fear stops people from experiencing life to the full, trying new things, just getting out there and saying, “Screw it!” It’s by no means easy to ignore your fears, but even if you can do something you’re frightened of once a year – you will quickly find your life has become a whole lot more interesting.
JA: Making a difference and ‘passing it on’ seem to be intrinsic parts of your search for legacy. You are hugely philanthropic and yet your favourite song is ‘My Way’. Are they at odds?
RB: Well when you put it like that! No, I think it’s possible to have both. We set up Virgin Unite quite a few years ago; it’s the non-profit foundation of the Virgin Group, which unites people to tackle tough social and environmental problems in an entrepreneurial way. It aims to revolutionise the way businesses and the social sector work together – driving business as a force for good. All overheads are covered by the Virgin Group, so 100% of donations received go direct to the frontline. It’s a truly unique foundation. Did I really say my favourite song was ‘My Way’?!
JA: How do you hope to bring together the seemingly disparate worlds of luxury tourism and environmental sensitivity?
RB: Remote locations don’t always lend themselves to offering 100% eco facilities and services at manageable costs when a level of luxury service is expected. It’s an area which we certainly want to develop and will continue to research. People now expect sustainability and philanthropy and it’s a big influence in the decision making of where to stay for a holiday – which is fantastic news as it drives resort owners and designers to strive to be best of class in this area.
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